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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This post is not funny. But it is about humor writing.

I've done some humor writing, and love to read it. This week, in my online nonfiction class, it's all about the funny. My students are gamely grappling with full-on humor pieces as well as the subtle deployment of a bit of humor in an otherwise not-so-funny piece of writing. In addition to a number of other resources, both online and not, I've been passing along wisdom from two books.

In How To Write Funny: Add Humor to Every Kind of Writing, editor John B. Kachuba gathered craft tips and writing exercises from 14 humor writers, and interviewed 15 others. Some are names most readers recognize – Dave Barry, Roy Blount, Jr., Bill Bryson. Others are names known just as much for their own work as teachers of the nonfiction craft – Dinty Moore, Robin Hemley, Denise Duhamel.

In "The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing," David Evans notes, "Character is 98 percent of comedy….and timing is the other 98 percent." He's talking initially about movies and stand-up, but the idea is the same for nonfiction – if the narrator isn't a character a reader is compelled to listen to, funny won't matter. As for timing, Evans emphasizes the importance of letting humor unfold, gradually, "like a time release capsule." He goes on to discuss repetition and the "rule of three" – something every skilled humor writer uses – three funny examples, three pratfalls, three funny phrases in a row.

A newer book, And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, edited by Mick Sacks, presents question-and-answer interviews with 21 accomplished humorists, including David Sedaris, Jack Handey, and (the perennial) Dave Barry. More specific to each writer's particular resume, the interviews range wide and dig deep. I'm loving every minute making my way through this book.

Even after publishing dozens of pieces in The New Yorker's humor column, Shouts & Murmurs, Jack Handey says he still get rejected about one-third of the time. In another repeated section of the book where editors, agents and others offer "quick and painless advice for the aspiring humor writer," his New Yorker editor, Susan Morrison, guesses that the one-third stat "sounds a little high for Jack," but that yes, she does sometimes say no, even to her most prolific humor writers.

Handey's New Yorker pieces generally take him, "A long time. The hard part is coming up with the ideas, letting the idea simmer, then going back and seeing if there's anything there. It can take months or even years for an idea to click. I am usually suspicious of any idea of mine that I love right away." He wasn't kidding.

Do you have a favorite current humor writer? I'm partial to Bill Bryson, who, in the Kachuba book, reminds writers that readers should come across funny bits in books, "...little by little rather than be inundated by them. They should be a spring shower rather than a deluge…people can only laugh so long. You get tired of laughing. Even if you're really enjoying it, the idea of spending five hours listening to even the funniest comedian in the world begins to feel like torment. You don't want to keep on laughing, you want to relax. Everybody's heard of comic relief, but actually you need a straightforward relief from comedy. It took me a while to realize that, but I think it not only gives the readers a relief, it makes the jokes, when they come, that much more effective."

Which is good news because how many of us can be funny all over the page? The writers featured in these two books actually can, but they know just how often and just when and just how much to let loose.

Readers, do you write any humor? Or try to incorporate humor in your regular writing? What's great and awful about it?

1 comment:

Alyssa C. said...

Ugh. Humor writing can be tough, but really fun if you "get it."

It took me a really, really long time to write this one scene that was hilarious at the time, but to readers, was difficult to visualize and connect what was happening. I had to break it down into really clear and concise actions and sentences before it could work. Even today, I sometimes read back that section and think, "God, does this even make sense!?"

I find it much easier to incorporate funny metaphors or comparisons, rather than explain a "funny" event that actually happened. Not sure what that says abut humor writing, but definitely says *something*